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‘We expected repressions, not barbarity’ How the Kremlin's 2012 adoption ban broke the will of Russia's political class
Story by Andrey Pertsev. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
July 10, 2008, was a dangerously hot day in Herndon, Virginia. At the end of the workday, a man named Miles Harrison left his office and walked through the parking lot. When he reached his car, he glanced into the backseat. What he saw caused him to collapse.
Harrison’s newly adopted son, Chase, had died of heatstroke in the vehicle. That morning, Harrison was supposed to drop the baby off at kindergarten but had forgotten. He’d left Chase in his car seat, where he was trapped for nine hours. The boy was two and a half.
A jury acquitted Miles Harrison, finding no sign that Chase’s death was anything but an accident. In Russia, however, Dima Yakovlev, as Chase was known before his adoptive parents renamed him, became a household name: the Kremlin used the incident to launch a new campaign against the “collective West” — and against domestic dissent.
‘Beyond the pale’
In January 2012, the sixth convocation of the Russian State Duma began its work against the backdrop of the largest protest rallies the country had seen in a decade (a response in part to the dubious elections that brought the same Duma’s members to power). Deputies from the Communist Party and the party A Just Russia, masquerading as real opposition, attended some of the rallies, wore white ribbons (a symbol of the protests), and pulled stunts like delaying the adoption of repressive bills by adding hundreds of amendments to them at once. A Just Russia party chairman Sergey Mironov even suggested that he might become a “transitional president.”
Then, in March 2012, everything changed. Putin returned to the presidency, ending the era of his “tandemocracy” with Dmitry Medvedev. The “oppositional” parliament promptly reverted to an obedient one; most of the deputies who had tried to embed themselves in grassroots protest movements suddenly began dutifully voting for Kremlin-backed initiatives.
Soon, the parliament began “purging” deputies who still took independent stances. In September 2012, for example, the State Duma stripped Gennady Gudkov of his seat, claiming that he had illegally profited from his position (he spent the preceding several months voicing support for anti-Putin protesters).
But that was just the start. On December 10, 2012, then-State Duma speaker Sergey Naryshkin and the leaders of all four of the Duma’s party factions introduced a bill banning American citizens “involved in violations of freedoms and human rights” and “offenses against Russia and its citizens” from entering Russia. The legislation itself didn’t stand out among the numerous repressive measures passed by Russian lawmakers during that period, but the fact that parliamentarians unanimously approved it was notable.
The bill’s authors emphasized that it was Russia’s response to the U.S. Magnitsky Act. In 2007, Sergey Magnitsky, an auditor for the Hermitage Capital investment fund, announced that he had uncovered a scheme to embezzle 5.4 billion rubles (about $75 million) from the Russia’s state budget and that multiple security officials were involved. He was subsequently arrested for tax evasion, and he died in a remand prison in 2009. The cause of death was recorded as heart failure. He was just 37 years old. The Magnitsky Act imposed sanctions against the people suspected to have been involved in the young man’s death; it was later expanded to apply to citizens of Russia and other countries suspected of human rights violations.
Within days, 400 out of 450 State Duma deputies and 144 out of 146 Federal Assembly members had signed the retaliatory bill imposing sanctions against American citizens. Dima Yakovlev’s name came up during the bill’s first reading.
“They named their bill after Magnitsky. United Russia [Russia’s ruling party] proposes naming our bill after Dima Yakovlev — the two-year-old baby who was burned alive [in the U.S.],” said deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov.
On December 17, United Russia deputy Ekaterina Lakhova and Yelena Afanasyeva, a deputy from the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), amended the document to include a ban on American citizens adopting Russian children.
Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov (the son of ousted Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov) told Meduza that the adoption amendment was “completely unexpected” for most members of parliament. “It was beyond the pale. We expected repressions [against the opposition], but we didn’t expect barbarity,” he said.
‘A human shield’
Speaking to Meduza, two sources close to the leaders of the Kremlin’s political bloc credited a third party with persuading Vladimir Putin to endorse the idea of banning U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. The initiative could have come from then-Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner Pavel Astakhov, who had been advocating for the measure since 2010, or from members of Russia’s Security Council, according to the source.
Ekaterina Lakhova, one of adoption amendment’s official coauthors, claimed at the time that she had been “troubled” by the idea of “Americans adopting Russian orphans” since the mid-2000s. A source who was close to State Duma leadership at the time, however, told Meduza that both the bill itself and the adoption amendment “arrived” at the parliament from the Putin administration and the Security Council (whose secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, remains in the post to this day).
In 2012, TV Rain, citing its own sources, reported that then-First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Putin administration and current State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin had worked with Lakhova to write the amendment. Sources who worked in the presidential administration’s political bloc at the time, as well as one who worked in the State Duma’s administrative office, told Meduza that Volodin and Lakhova served as “executors” who “delivered” the amendments to the State Duma from the Kremlin and “ensured the deputies' support.”
Dmitry Gudkov confirmed this to Meduza: “Volodin acted through his counterparty [Lakhova]: You introduce [the bill], and then we’ll twist the arms [of the Duma deputies] so that it gets passed.”
And the deputies’ arms did require twisting. The proposed adoption ban sparked a public controversy impossible to imagine in the Russia of 2022. The measure’s critics included a number of high-status establishment politicians, including members of the ruling party. St. Petersburg Senator Vadim Tyulpanov, for example, remarked, “As a rule, Russian citizens adopt healthy children, whereas ill and severely ill children get adopted primarily by foreign citizens, including Americans. In fact, in large part by Americans.” He was right: between the early 1990s and the end of 2012, American families adopted about 60,000 children from Russia, constituting anywhere from 10 percent to 28 percent of all foreign adopters of Russian children in various years.
Still, the Kremlin got its way. Dmitry Gudkov, who voted against the “Dima Yakovlev law,” recounted the situation to Meduza: “The presidential administration gave instructions through the factions’ leadership. Deputies were told these [instructions] were coming from Putin himself, and that if they didn’t vote, they would become his enemy; they’d be personally challenging the president. Businessmen were made to understand they would have problems with their businesses, and politicians were told they wouldn’t be allowed to join the next parliament.”
Sergey Petrov, Gudkov’s former party colleague, confirmed to Meduza that the heads of their faction “threw themselves at the [bill’s] opponents like lions, with a fury we’d never seen before.”
The threats worked. At first, 388 deputies (mostly from the United Russia party) voted for the amendment banning adoption by Americans, while only 15 voted against it. One person formally abstained, while 44 didn’t vote. In the second reading, 400 deputies supported the bill, and only four opposed it: Gudkov, Petrov, and their fellow A Just Russia members Ilya Ponomarev and Valery Zubov.
In the third reading, a few more people opposed the bill after A Just Russia member Andrey Ozerov, United Russia member Boris Reznik, and Communist Party member Oleg Smolin changed their votes.
The only deputy who voted against the amendment and still has a seat in the Russian State Duma today is Communist Oleg Smolin. In 2013, he told journalists:
To be honest, I was just outraged when children were brought into the struggle between different financial groups. I wouldn’t want our children to be made into human shields for our oligarchs and security officials. I don’t think using children to protect participants in financial proceedings is patriotism. I think patriotism is something completely different.
Nine years later, in February 2022, Smolin would be the only State Duma deputy to vote against Russia’s recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics.” On the other hand, he said almost immediately that he’d hit the wrong button by mistake (he is blind) and proceeded to change his vote.
None of the other then-deputies who voted against the adoption bill are still in Russian politics. Boris Reznik opted not to run in the following election, while the others, such as Ilya Ponomarev and Dmitry Gudkov, went on to become political emigrants. In April 2022, Andrey Ozerov was arrested on suspicion of embezzlement, and he was put under house arrest in June and prohibited from using the Internet.
‘Nobody knew the new rules’
Unlike the State Duma, the Federation Council didn’t take much convincing: the senators unanimously supported the Putin administration’s initiative.
The government cabinet, however, put up more of a fight. Ministers at that time consisted largely of “liberal technocrats,” many of whom had trouble understanding why the Kremlin was pushing for the adoption ban.
The bill came under criticism from officials as high-ranking as then-Deputy Prime Ministers Olga Golodets and Arkady Dvorkovich, Education Minister Dmitry Livanov, Open Government Affairs Minister Mikhail Abyzov, and even Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (who called the initiative “wrong” and expressed confidence that the “Duma will make a balanced decision”).
“It’s as if the logic is ‘An eye for an eye,’ but that logic is wrong because the ones who might suffer are children of ours who can’t find adoptive parents in Russia,” Livanov wrote on Twitter. Propagandist Vladimir Solovyov responded approvingly.
Deputies from Russia’s ruling party, including Vyacheslav Volodin’s subordinates, savaged the bill’s “liberal” objectors. State Duma deputy Olga Batalina, for example, called Education Minister Livanov “incompetent” and the ministry itself “dysfunctional.”
A former government official who spoke to Meduza on condition of anonymity noted that Volodin and his circle were acting “at their own risk”: “The system had changed with Putin and Medvedev’s ‘castling’ move, and nobody knew the new rules.”
Another source who was close to the government during that period told Meduza that even then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev opposed the law and asked some colleagues to speak out against it. Nonetheless, the former president himself didn’t publicly reveal his position. “It’s not about inter-state disputes or even about our personal positions. I thought there was a lot to say about this, but I won’t, I’ll refrain; I’ve said it all before, in conversation with President Obama,” Medvedev vaguely explained at the time.
On December 28, Putin signed the bill into law. Just weeks later, on December 13, a protest dubbed the “March Against Scoundrels” was held in Moscow; participants (numbering about 50,000, according to protest organizers) carried portraits of the deputies who voted for the bill. By the time the protest was over, the Dima Yakovlev law had another name: the Law of Scoundrels.
A loyalty test
According to official lists, when the Dima Yakovlev law was passed, about 250 Russian children were slated to be adopted by American families. Fifty-two of those adoptions went through successfully, winning court approval before the law entered force. According to data from 2017, adoptive parents were never found for 11 of the remaining children. One of the children died less than six months after the Dima Yakovlev law was passed.
In the years that followed, the Russian authorities regularly hinted that the law might be repealed, but that never happened. On the contrary, the political practices that proved effective during the Dima Yakovlev law’s passage became firmly entrenched in Russian political life. State Duma deputies began rushing Kremlin-supported initiatives into law with increasing frequency, exhibiting hitherto unheard-of unanimity. In 2013, for example, the parliament gave regional authorities the ability to cancel mayoral elections independently; in 2014, the Duma overwhelmingly approved the annexation of Crimea, and eight years later, the lawmakers unanimously voted for the annexation of four more Ukrainian regions.
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Dmitry Gudkov told Meduza that, in his view, the Dima Yakovlev law’s passage was a “turning point” for Russian politics. He believes only “a few of the denser deputies” sincerely supported the measure, while the rest “knew exactly what they were voting for”:
Until then, they still had some semblance of [...] moral cores — even if they voted for repressive laws. They could tell themselves they supported those laws for political reasons or even out of patriotism — as if the laws would prevent people like Navalny from rising to power on U.S. State Department money and destroying Russia. That’s nonsense, of course, but it’s probably possible to justify one’s actions to oneself in that way.
But the adoption ban was unjustifiable; the public definitely wasn’t demanding it. It’s just that Putin wanted to punish the U.S. It was a presidential whim, and it cost children’s lives. It was a question of ethics: Am I a monster or not? And they answered in the affirmative.
As Gudkov tells it, in December 2012, the Kremlin conclusively “broke” the deputies and “arranged all of the scoundrels in one formation”: “The deputies turned into clay that the Kremlin could mold to make whatever it wanted.”
A source who worked with Vyacheslav Volodin in 2012 told Meduza that Russia’s top leadership viewed the adoption ban as a test of loyalty and as a way to determine who was prepared for “demonstrative anti-Western tightening.”
According to political scientist Alexander Kynev, considered against the backdrop of the 2011–2012 protests, “it was important to end the pushback from the non-systemic opposition”: “The ‘anti-Magnitsky’ law was a conspicuous break in the way the parliament voted; it was when the public differences between the party of power’s behavior and the systemic opposition parties’ behavior disappeared.”
“2012 was marked by uncertainty. The prevailing opinion among experts was that the president, of course, had won, but that the situation would be completely different by the next election. People expected a new president to appear in 2018; sure, he would be chosen by Putin, but he would be new. In 2014, the situation changed. People started saying, ‘Why do we need a new president, if Putin performed a miracle and returned Crimea?’” political scientist Alexey Makarkin told Meduza.
Ultimately, according to Makarkin, even the systemic opposition adopted this new “radically conservative” post-annexation view.
Meduza reached out to Vyacheslav Volodin, Pavel Astakhov, Olga Batalina, Nikolai Levichev, Oleg Smolin, Yekaterina Lakhova, Sergey Mironov, and Dmitry Peskov for comment. As of this article’s publication, nobody responded.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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